- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2006

PHOENIX (AP) — Billy Preston, the exuberant keyboardist who landed dream gigs with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and enjoyed his own series of hit singles, including “Outta Space” and “Nothing From Nothing,” died yesterday. He was 59.

Mr. Preston’s longtime manager, Joyce Moore, said Mr. Preston had been in a coma since November in a care facility and was taken to a Scottsdale hospital Saturday after his condition deteriorated.

“He had a very, very beautiful last few hours and a really beautiful passing,” Miss Moore said by telephone from Germany.

Mr. Preston had battled chronic kidney failure, and he received a kidney transplant in 2002. But the kidney failed and he has been on dialysis ever since, Miss Moore said earlier this year.

Known for his big smile and towering Afro, Mr. Preston was a teen prodigy on the piano and organ, and lent his gospel-tinged touch to classics such as the Beatles’ “Get Back” and the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”

He broke out as a solo artist in the 1970s, winning a best instrumental Grammy in 1972 for “Outta Space,” and scoring other hits with “Will It Go ‘Round In Circles,” “Nothing From Nothing” and “With You, I’m Born Again,” a duet with Syreeta Wright. He also wrote Joe Cocker’s weeper “You Are So Beautiful.”

Other career highlights included being a musical guest, in 1975, on the debut of “Saturday Night Live”; having a song named after him, by Miles Davis; and appearing last year on “American Idol.” Among his film credits: “Blues Brothers 2000” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

A Houston native who soon moved to Los Angeles when his parents split up, Mr. Preston was in and around show business for much of his life. He was taking piano lessons at age 3 and was just 10 when he played keyboards for gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

Two years later, he portrayed a young W.C. Handy in the 1958 biopic “St. Louis Blues.” He toured with mentors and fellow piano greats Ray Charles and Little Richard in the early 1960s, first encountering the Beatles while on the road in Germany.

Exposed to drugs and alcohol early on, Mr. Preston had numerous personal troubles in recent years. In 1992, he was given a suspended jail sentence, but was ordered incarcerated for nine months at a drug-rehabilitation center for his no-contest pleas to cocaine and assault charges. Five years later, he was sentenced to three years in prison for violating probation. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and agreed to testify against other defendants in a purported scam that netted about $1 million.

“It [jail] was a great lesson, an awakening. I needed to reflect, to get rid of some of the dead weight around me,” he later said. “You take the bitter with the sweet, and I have to say it was my faith that kept me going. I had nothing else to fall back on.”

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